Ballroom lures new
generation to the floor

By LaReeca Rucker

On weekend nights in Starkville, after restaurant workers have served the last entree and moved all the tables to create open space, Mississippi State University students get their groove on, moving to the beat of Latin music as they salsa and merengue inside The Abbey on Main Street.

Owner Mario Perez says it's become a popular spot, attracting college students and others looking for a place to show off the moves they've learned in ballroom dancing classes.

"We've been here almost three years," he says, "and we started it the first year I was here. We're kind of an alternative for the kids who go to clubs to listen to bands."

The Abbey is on Chappell Ford's to-do list. When the MSU student isn't studying chemical engineering, she's learning to salsa, rumba, waltz, fox trot, tango, hustle and swing as a member of the MSU Ballroom Dancing Club.

The 19-year-old lists her love of ballroom dancing on her Facebook profile, where a number of groups are dedicated to the activity.

They include My Future Spouse Has to be Able to Ballroom Dance, Ballroom Dancing is Not Just For Old People and I Ballroom Danced before Dancing With the Stars Made it Cool.

The groups are filled with college-age students from California and New York to France, who represent a growing demographic now interested in an activity once dominated by the over-40 crowd.

Ford joined the MSU club last November after friends convinced her to take a class.

"I started going to official dance lessons in January, and I've been doing it ever since," she says, adding that ballroom dancing seems to be gaining popularity on campus.

"For the spring semester, we didn't have a lot of people," she says, "but this semester, we had probably 100 at our first club meeting."

Anyone can attend, but most are college students, and both men and women have shown an interest.

"We usually end up with a 50 percent ratio," she says.

Michael O'Neal, a 21-year-old biological engineering student, is the club president. He says it's grown by word of mouth since it was founded in 2005, and more than 150 people have taken lessons this year.

"I'm sure Dancing With the Stars has had some effect on it," O'Neal says, "because the show has put ballroom dancing out there."

Some come to escape from the stress of studying. Others come to learn social dancing.

"We had two couples who told us they came to learn how to dance at their wedding," he says.

Several Mississippi colleges like the University of Mississippi and University of Southern Mississippi have ballroom dancing clubs. Others offer classes and continuing education courses.

Nola Gibson is in charge of the Millsaps Enrichment Program, which offers beginning ballroom dancing classes through The Mississippi Dance Doctors in Pearl, led by husband-and-wife dance instructors Mike and Lisa Day.

"We've been doing the classes seven or eight years," Gibson says. "Before, it was mainly done by those who are middle-aged or older. But they now realize it's not just old people doing the waltz. There's great music, and a lot of the dances are fast.

"The Latin dances have a great beat, and I think younger people are attracted to them because they aren't boring or slow at all."

Gibson also handles publicity for the Magnolia Ballroom Dancers, a nonprofit social dance organization promoting ballroom dancing in Mississippi. The group holds a dance once a month at the Mississippi Agriculture Museum inside the Forestry Auditorium, and ballroom dancing students from the Jackson metro area attend.

"We usually have about 150 who attend the monthly dance," Gibson says. The next dance will be from 8-11 p.m. Saturday. Admission is $15 for guests and $10 for members.

Christina Aguilera's 2006 album Back to Basics, featuring the song Candyman, reintroduced swing dance to a new generation. And films like the 2004 movie Shall We Dance, starring Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere, and the 2006 Antonio Banderas film Take the Lead, may have also helped revive interest.

Day says ballroom dancing was popular in the 1940s and '50s, but when rock and roll emerged, it faded. In the 1970s, it returned in a new form - disco.

"Then disco died, and all the disco dancers became ballroom dancers," he says. "Now, ballroom dancing is coming back into the prominence it had in the 1950s.

"I'd say six years ago, if you had 15 new lessons a year, that would be pretty good. Now we have 10 or 15 new people every week."

And Day agrees that ballroom dancers are getting younger.

"When I started back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it seemed like most of the students were probably 50 or 60," he says. "Now we have college kids and high school students in our classes."

Unfortunately, some have unrealistic expectations when attending their first class.

"A lot of students come in and want to learn what Marie Osmond did last week," he says. "I'm sorry. She learned a routine. She couldn't dance the tango if her life depended on it."

Hattiesburg native Shellie Hubbard is a ballerina who's studying to become a certified ballroom dance instructor, and she participates in Argentine tango competitions with her partner, Percell St. Thomass.

She's also founder of the nonprofit organization Tango Mississippi. "We promote tango and Latin dance and culture throughout the state," she says, reiterating that the footwork seen on Dancing With the Stars is different from typical social dancing ballroom lessons.

While Dancing With the Stars may be different, Day says ballroom dancers and instructors are grateful the show has generated new interest.

"Instead of people thinking that we do this really odd thing that no one does anymore, now it's cool to be a ballroom dancer," he says, unknowingly echoing the title of one of the Facebook groups. "It's kind of like I was a ballroom dancer before ballroom dancing was cool."